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Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire and Utopian Dreams
By Michael D'Antonio
Simon & Schuster, 2006
ISBN 0743264096
Review By William I. Lengeman III

If you guessed that it would take a larger than life figure to pretty much single-handedly introduce the concept of the chocolate bar to America and amass a vast fortune from that very same enterprise, you'd be right.

That man, of course, was Milton Snavely Hershey and his enterprise was Hershey Foods, one of the top players in the candy industry to this day. But, even though he would do so much more than just create an empire of chocolate, Hershey's relatively modest beginnings were far removed from the larger than life category.

Perhaps the most interesting of the countless painstakingly researched details D'Antonio uncovers about Hershey's early life is how many times he failed in the candy business before he got it right. Of course, when he finally got it right he really got it right, selling his thriving caramel company in 1900, just as that business was peaking, for a cool million dollars. Hershey was 42 at the time, but rather than rest on his laurels he plunged right into the chocolate business - an industry that was in it's tender years at the time.

The road to success in this venture was not predestined nor was the path an easy one, but the pieces of the puzzle eventually lined up and before long Hershey was even more successful as a chocolate maker than he had been with caramels.

If he'd stopped there Hershey's achievement would have been considerable. But he didn't stop and instead went on to pretty much build a town from the ground up - the one that bears his name - not to mention starting up assorted and sundry other business ventures, including a renowned luxury hotel, a popular amusement park and a Cuban sugar plantation.

One of Hershey's most audacious moves came in 1918, when he decreed that his entire fortune - a quite substantial one - should be turned over the school for disadvantaged boys he'd founded in the early years of the century. This essentially meant that after Hershey's death trustees of the school would exercise a considerable degree of control over his business empire. It even meant that they could sell Hershey Foods, if they deemed that this was in the best interests of the school.

It's the war that this proposed sale sparked, just a few years ago, that D'Antonio uses as the bookends for this tale. It illustrates just how much larger than life Hershey was, that so many would be driven to ask "what would Milton do?" at a time when he'd already been in his grave for more than a half century.

D'Antonio presents an intriguing look at a complex man - a veritable Sultan of Sweets, if you will - and the small world he created. In official marketing parlance it's known as The Sweetest Place on Earth, but the author simply refers to it as "this Willy Wonka place."

Food writer William I. Lengeman III lives close enough to Hershey that he can sometimes smell
chocolate in the air. He maintains Tea Guy Speaks, a Web site devoted to the appreciation of tea.

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